Future Mormon 9: Network Theology Part 1

Welcome to the ninth chapter of the never quite weekly reading club for Adam Miller’s Future Mormon. For general links related to the book along with links for all the chapter discussions please go to our overview page. Please don’t hesitate to give your thoughts on the chapter. We’re hoping for a good thoroughgoing critical engagement with the text. Such criticisms aren’t treating the text as bad or flawed so much as trying to engage with the ideas Adam brings up. Hopefully people will push back on such criticism if they disagree or even just see flaws in the logic. That’s when we tend to all learn the most.


Summation

(1) reality is originally multiple, (2) unity or (at-one-ment) is an operation, not a given, and (3) all form (or spirit) is matter.

This chapter takes Adam’s basic ontological stance and ties it explicitly into his religious views. He asks if one can be Christian without being a Platonist. He calls “platonism” the broad understanding that (1) unity comes before multiplicity, (2) essence before existence, and (3) matter depends upon form. His solution is the opposite for each of these three points. (Above) This is the network thinking that characterizes Adam’s non-Mormon philosophical work. This view starts from the perspective that networks are complex, dynamic, open, distributed, reflexive, and non-linear (not additive), self-organizing, emergent, current state dependent upon the past states, local, and flat in that there’s nothing beyond the network. The analogy would be the internet.

Next he questions theology in terms of this non-platonic conception. (1) God is not a king but his kingdom is a democracy. God is not dictator to all but servant to all. (2) truth is a process not a static process. (3) Grace is immanent rather than an external intervention. (4) The soul itself has parts rather than a self-identical unitary indivisible thing. As a network it’s essentially relational and salvation of the soul is as well.

Critique

This is a really hard chapter to deal with since it’s very much a scattergun introduction to Adam’s thought. Lots of ideas not a lot of detail. It’s more Adam introducing ideas to people but not really analyzing them. That’s unfortunate because each of these ideas really could use two or three chapters grappling and analyzing. While Adam introduces the ideas, I’m not sure the typical reader will grasp how profound existentialism is (existence precedes essence) nor the limits of such views. Given that there’s no extended analysis and there’s so much thrown out in this chapter I’m not entirely sure how to respond.

Let me say up front I’m extremely sympathetic to existentialism. Among most Mormon philosophers it’s seemed to be an extremely popular view. However when you have such disparate thinkers as Chauncey Riddle, Blake Ostler, Jim Faulconer and others with varying degrees of existentialist approaches to the gospel it’s clear it’s a very broad term. Adam also doesn’t necessarily clarify or distinguish between more epistemological or ethical existentialist stances and more ontological ones. His concerns appear to be primarily ontological but this raises the question of an existentialist platonism.

Consider the traditional distinction between actuality and possibility. We can talk about my dog, Einstein, and all the ways he’s actually existed. However clearly he could have acted in other ways. So we might have this broader idea of Einstein and all the possible choices he could have made and all the possible paths he could have taken up until his death. Yet what if we consider my dog more broadly yet? Not just the ways he could have acted, but all the different possibilities around him. If he were to lose an ear would he cease to be my dog Einstein? Clearly not. We could keep pushing things more broadly getting at all the possible ways Einstein would still be my dog Einstein. We could go still more broadly yet thinking of all the ways Australian Shepherds, his breed, could be. Then we could go more broadly yet thinking of all the ways dogs could be dogs.[1]

If we keep pushing this back eventually we’ll see that we end at a state of the possibility of all possibilities. Let’s call this The One. Now in one sense this just is neoplatonism. We’ve just changed talk of essences and forms for talk of possibilities, limiting possibilities merely by some category often tied to our own existence.

Is this platonism in Adam’s use though? This distinction between possibilities and actualities ends up getting at Adam’s consideration of unity prior to multiplicity. If we see possibilities as more fundamental, are those possibilities unity or multiplicity?

What I outline as possibilities is surprisingly similar to what Adam discusses in terms of networks. While we can make distinctions, in terms of these probability networks they are distinctions we bring to the probability to be able to make sense of them. Ultimately there’s just what is possible. I could expand upon this, but I want to raise the idea, much like Adam throws out ideas, simply to suggest platonism is more than it might seem. And thereby problematize Adam’s own analysis.

Let me touch on a few of Adam’s points to problematize them as well. Consider his use of democracy. Now he’s somewhat needlessly provocative here with his language. However if we think of this not as democracy but as simply existence having many possibilities that everyone affects then it makes a bit more sense. Everyone is an actor and every act limits what future possibilities there are. The problem is that this isn’t democratic. While every actor gets a vote in that they get to act, not every actor has the same power. My choices determine an unique future yet the effect of my choices is much less than say Putin or Trump. God, if he is even able to be the servant of all, can only be an effective servant because of his power. But that very power necessitated by his servitude completely undermines the very idea of democracy or equality in vote if to vote is merely to act. All are not equal in the sense that Democracy seems to require. Who controls possibilities the most?

Next what is top down or bottom up? Well, if we think in terms of possibilities it’s rather hard to distinguish the two. To the point that I’d say it’s not a useful distinction. What we have is merely power plays. God might choose to not act in a certain way, but that very choice is itself a choice that constricts possibilities in exactly the same ways as his choosing to act. To draw an analogy choosing not to rescue a drowning child is as much an act of power as choosing to rescue them. So at a basic ontological level, to talk about God emptying himself or allowing freedom is not democratic at all but just a difference in where power is directed.

I want to address Adam’s conception of Truth, but I’ll do that in a subsequent post. I may do two or three on this chapter since there’s so much here.

1. Adam’s article “Christo-Fiction, Mormon Philosophy and the Virtual Body of Christ” in To Be Learned is Good gets at this issue of what I might prefer to call an existentialist platonism. That is all the ways Mormonism is Mormonism rather than all the ways an Australian Shepherd is a dog. However somewhat like this chapter because it doesn’t delve into the background topics enough, it’s bound to be somewhat misunderstood. Indeed a “review” at The Interpreter completely missed what Adam was saying. This is the danger here. While Adam’s a profound theological thinker, many of his books (like I’d argue this chapter) tend to demand one already understand his thinking and its background. I hope in the future he writes a book on these topics more introductory without demanding such philosophical background – somewhat like Blake Ostler has so successfully done.

3 comments for “Future Mormon 9: Network Theology Part 1

  1. p
    January 14, 2019 at 2:50 pm

    what?

  2. January 14, 2019 at 2:52 pm

    This chapter in Miller’s book could also be called “Is It Possible to Be an Atheist and a Christian”? Miller’s answer is an emphatic YES.

  3. Clark
    January 14, 2019 at 3:02 pm

    I don’t think that’s fair Pedro. I do think there’s a constant tension in Adam’s notion of grace between an expansive almost Buddhist conception of Grace and then a more particularly Christian conception of Grace. More particularly I think that since Mormons reject creation ex nihilo seeing Grace as all immanence becomes troubling since Mormons don’t have God as creating everything. Even if one moves towards a more neoplatonic conception where God is the source of all creation (arguably present in early Mormonism prior to certain revelations like D&C 131 in Nauvoo) there’s still a problem. That is, however a long standing problem in our theology. It’s present in Orson Pratt’s theology for instance which led him to divorce The Spirit from either God the Father or even the Holy Ghost as a personage. The question is how Adam engages with that question. Thus far he really hasn’t in any sustained way.

    But ontologically I’d say that Mormons have much more in common with atheists than most Christians. That’s because we simply separate Being from God. The key move of the apostasy, as many thinkers see it, was the merging of the God of Athens with the God of Jerusalem. The traditional move in very liberal Christianity has been to throw out the God of Jerusalem (the interventionist anthropomorphic God) and just talk about God as Being in some sense. Ironically this moves them very close to the neoplatonists other than the issue of creation ex nihilo. Mormons tend to make the move in the other direction, keeping the anthropomorphic interventionist God while dismissing the rest as God in any strong sense. (Although D&C 93 makes it difficult to make that move completely)

    From a Mormon perspective though the main problem with Atheists is that they reject the notion of God as a powerful immortal being acting in history in a fashion akin to how humans act. I don’t think we ultimately have any ontological problems with them. Indeed physicalism has a long history in Mormon thought. (Arguably Brigham was a physicalist, although he typically didn’t concern himself with such questions)

    P, lots of technical philosophy in the chapter. It’s particularly dense. So yeah, it’s not a chapter one can really get into without background in the issues. As I mentioned in the footnote, I do hope Adam can write a more introductory book on all this and his views. In particular I hope he engages with this tension between God’s grace particularly in the sense of the Atonement and Plan of Salvation as intentional action and what he elsewhere calls secular grace which is roughly just immanence of change. (That’s not an entirely fair portrayal but is a close first order approximation) For more on Adam’s notion of what I call secular grace his book Speculative Grace is worth reading.

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